Recent actions by Harvard University to deal with racism, and the backlash to those efforts, show that we have a long way to go in dealing with white supremacy in society, and in elite centers of power.
Harvard officials found themselves apologizing after the College’s Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion distributed social justice placemats to the undergraduate dining halls, as a suggestion for how students can deal with racism and Islamophobia, Black Lives Matter and the Syrian refugee crisis with relatives over the holidays.
The placemat consists of four topics regarding questions that a student might receive from relatives, including Student Activism, Isalmophobia/Refugees, House Master Title (Harvard no longer refers to the head of student residential houses as “Masters” because of the reference to slavery) and Black Murders in the Street.
For example, under Black Murders in the Street, the hypothetical question from a relative is asked: “Why didn’t they just listen to the officer? If they had just obeyed the law this wouldn’t have happened.” The suggested response says, “Do you think the response would be the same if it was a white person being pulled over? In may incidents that result in the death of a black body, these victims are not breaking the law and are unarmed.”
According to some critics, the placemat was too simplistic, or did not allow for opposing views, portraying those who disagree as racist and intolerant. Others dismissed it as liberal propaganda.
In the Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper, Idrees M. Kahloon says that more than half of the placemat was taken from a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, which in an editorial the newspaper says is “a rather fitting reflection of the thoughtlessness it seeks to impose on students. That organization’s professed aim is to move ‘white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability.’”
“The handout shamefully parallels a similar tendency among activists to conflate well-meaning people who have the audacity to hold contrary opinions with racists and demagogues,” Kahloon adds. “Either you toe the party line, or your justifications don’t matter because you are too white, too male, or too privileged in some other way. Opponents of Yale activism are portrayed as racist, and those with concerns about Syrian refugees are painted as Islamophobic.”
In light of the strong negative responses from some in the Harvard community, the university apologized, though perhaps they should not have done so. Stephen Lassonde, dean of student life, and Thomas Dingman, dean of freshmen, issued the following statement:
We write to acknowledge that the placemat distributed in some of your dining halls this week failed to account for the many viewpoints that exist on our campus on some of the most complex issues we confront as a community and society today. Our goal was to provide a framework for you to engage in conversations with peers and family members as you return home for the winter break, however, it was not effectively presented and it ultimately caused confusion in our community… Academic freedom is central to all that Harvard College stands for. To suggest that there is only one point of view on each of these issues runs counter to our educational goals.
Meanwhile, the Harvard GOP weighed in with their own sarcastic response:
Earlier, Harvard provided students with a guide for dealing with pesky relatives back home. We’ve provided our own. pic.twitter.com/E0sF9Rja2H
— Harvard GOP (@harvardgop) December 16, 2015
Surely, in a university no one wants to dictate the thoughts of students. And yet, at the same time, institutions are constantly inculcating values to its members, its followers, or to society in general. Perhaps there is more than one method of dealing with racial justice. However, when fighting racism and white supremacy, there are no two sides of the coin. Either you are in favor of dealing with racism and eradicating it, or you are not. How we want to outline the fine points is up for discussion. However, those who disagree with the Harvard placemat have no real alternative, except to ridicule the entire concept of addressing racism.
The backlash against Harvard’s modest and well-intentioned effort at addressing racism is palpable, in a campus that of late has had its share of racial conflict. And yet, the need for a discussion is more than apparent. This is a university whose portraits of Black law faculty were defaced, and yet the portrait of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney– who said Black people have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”—remains on the wall. Further, one of Harvard’s law school alumni, Justice Antonin Scalia, recently spewed his racist beliefs by suggesting that universities should have fewer Black students, and they would do better at “slower track” and “lesser” schools.
The extent of the negative reaction shows that the images and messages disseminated through society that promote white supremacy, through media propaganda and other methods, are reaching their intended targets and having the desired impact. The mentality and racist mindset addressed in the placemats is a reflection of the worldview of many Americans, and the ways in which they see themselves on the one hand, and Black people, Muslims and oppressed groups on the other hand.
Placemats will not solve the problem we are facing, but structural change certainly will. And a society hardwired for racism and white skin privilege needs new programming. But if we can’t even discuss it, how do we change it, except by demanding and forcing change?